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      Why footwash on Maundy Thursday?

      Maundy Thursday 2019 April 23, 2019
      Filed Under:
      Pr. Sebastian



      Maundy Thursday is the day in the liturgical calendar that commemorates the last night Jesus lived, the evening at the end of his ministry.

      The start of the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life.


      On the night on which Jesus was betrayed, 

      the three Gospel writers Matthew, Mark and Luke describe Jesus as enacting an example, something that he wanted his disciples to do in remembrance of him, 

      namely the Last Supper.

      However in the Gospel of John,
      no specific mention is made of the Last Supper being a memorial example. 

      In that Gospel, 

      the example that Jesus tells his disciples to do is to wash each other’s feet.


      As Jim Somerville describes it: 

      “Jesus is at the table with his disciples, 

      all of them reclining, propped up on their elbows, 

      dipping pita bread into bowls of savoury hummus and smacking their lips, 

      licking their fingers. 

      The sounds of conversation fill the room, 

      punctuated from time to time by loud laughter
      or the clink of one clay cup against another. 

      Oil lamps flicker, their light reflected in the shining eyes of the disciples, 

      and while all this is going on Jesus gets up from the table, 

      strips off his outer robe, 

      wraps a towel around his waist, 

      pours water into a basin, 

      and begins to wash the disciples’ feet.

      It would not be unusual if he were one of the household servants,

       the disciples have probably had their feet washed before. 

      However this was their teacher, their Lord! 

      As he moves from one to another, they fall silent, 

      until all all you can hear is the splash of water being poured into the basin over dusty, calloused feet. 


      Peter objects, but Jesus persists. 

      In the end, Jesus puts his robe back on to join them at the table. 

      “Do you know what I have done to you?” he asks. 

      Apparently not. 

      No one says a word. 

      “I have set you an example” Jesus says. 

      “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, 

      you also ought to wash another’s feet”



      Now on the subject of footwashing:

      ordinary hospitality rules in Jesus’ time would have recommended that the host would offer water for the guests, 

      who would have washed their own feet, 

      or if there was a slave, 

      the slave would have done the footwashing. 


      It also would be common even for the disciples to wash their master’s feet.

      (Remember the footwear of choice in those days were sandals..

      and remember they didn’t have any sanitary systems back then either…

      all waste of every origin was just thrown onto the streets 

      (to be washed down with rain). 

      So after a good day’s walk you’d have all kinds of goop on your feet.)

      (In the Middle East even today, showing the soles of your feet is considered a very rude insult,...because of all the dirt that accumulates down there.)


      So at that last supper,
      Jesus washing the feet of his disciples was a really big deal.

      In our Gospel story tonight, no location for the meal is mentioned, 

      we don’t know who the host is, 

      and therefore we don’t know who should have been responsible for organizing the footwashing.

      But there still is a need for feet to get washed.

      The disciples’ feet are dirty.

      And so Jesus turns into host and organizes the footwashing,

      but instead of just putting out some water and saying: “get at it boys!”

      Jesus kneels down and does the dirty job himself.




      It’s a huge reversal of roles.

      It’s a paradigm-shifting occurrence.

      It’s disconcerting and confusing for the disciples. 

      They don’t know what to make of it.

      They never thought something like that was possible.


      Jesus’ footwashing was a prophetic and a symbolic act,

      firstly showing what humble service toward one another can look like,

      (he gave of himself)

      and then told his friends: “now do as I have done!”

      If you are true followers, follow my example!

      Like any good teacher,

      First Jesus shows it,

      then tells them to love another, 

      after he does it first!


      He shows that he is no proud Lord, no proud king.

      He is a servant king,

      a Messiah who came to help, and to love, 

      a king who came to serve.




      So for us today,

      the big question is whether the footwashing that Jesus practiced

      should be a symbol and an example 

      or also something that should literally be imitated?


      Did Jesus just want to make a point about how we should be open to humbly serving one another,

      or did he actually want us to wash each other’s feet
      (as we think about that)?

      That’s definitely something the church has struggled with over the years,

      with most churches opting not to do the somewhat embarrassing ritual,
      and just talk about it,
      rather than doing it.


      As I’ve heard, the footwashing hasn’t been a very long tradition at St. Matts.

      And footwashing is by no means a universal practice among Lutherans tonight.


      But there are good reasons for having it done.

      I believe the practice is worthwhile because it makes you think!

      It’s so strange and out of the ordinary,

      so countercultural, 

      it really shakes us awake during the Evening Service.



      My experience of footwashing doesn’t go back that far..

      I remember when I was a teenager that altar servers told funny stories about all the floaties (lint, sock bits etc) that would be floating around in the wash basin after the footwashing rite on Maundy Thursday and how gross that was.…


      The first time I saw an actual footwashing was when I was maybe 15, visitng St. Benoit du Lac, 

      a monastery an hour south-east of Montreal, 

      where the priest washed the feet of 6 monks and 6 lay people. 

      It was a very moving experience for me,

      as the old priest, in his 70s, with difficulty got down,

      and with loving care, set himself about this task.


      Another fond experience I have is from my internship at St. Philip’s Etobicoke where I got to wash my supervisor’s feet. 

      He said it was the first time an intern had done that.



      The ritual of Footwashing is controversial and challenging.

      That’s for certain.

      It defies social and cultural conventions.

      Our feet are intimate. 

      Generally the only people we allow to give us a foot massage 

      are our lovers. 

      Some people would never even get a professional foot massage or pedicure, it’s too private. 

      There is something bordering on erotic going on with our feet.


      It must however be said that the footwashing we do tonight is very much symbolic and a ritual.

      We’re not getting out the soap, 

      We’re not going to use a brush and we won’t make a big fuss about cleaning between your toes!

      We’ll merely pour water over the feet, and dry them with a towel.


      The point is not about hygiene,

      but about the symbolism of the act.


      There are probably people here 

      who might be thinking: 

      why are the ministers doing that? 

      That’s so gross!


      But it’s interesting,
      that our reactions to such a challenging and almost offensive act are very similar 

      to those reactions by the disciples back then.

      We can echo the words of Peter: “What are you doing!?”

      Footwashing doesn’t fit into our normal idea of what church should be about: 

      the normal building up of mind and spirit, 

      sit still, don’t talk, sing during the hymns…

      but what in heaven’s name are the ministers doing on the floor? 

      with a towel and basin?

      And that’s precisely the point!

      It makes a strong and important statement.

      The rite of footwashing during the Maundy Thursday service dates at least back to the 7th century. 

      Most often,
      the pastor or priest would select 12 people (representing the 12 disciples), 

      some lay people, some elders, some other clergy, 

      and ceremonially wash their feet to re-enact Jesus’ practice, 

      as a symbol of true humble servanthood. 


      Having the pastors do the footwashing, 

      counters so much church tradition of putting pastors on pedestals,

      and of clergy of thinking too highly of themselves. 


      The footwashing on Maundy Thursday is an option that many churches 

      (especially quote unquote high liturgical churches) decide to do.

      In some churches, people wash each other’s feet, that is the person who has had their feet washed then stops down and washes the next person’s feet.

      The footwashing is a reminder of the servant call of every follower of Jesus.

      By re-enacting this controversial event in the life of Jesus and his disciples, 

      shortly before his death, we remind ourselves that ministering to others, 

      serving each other, 

      helping each other in selfless ways,

      is one of the ways we follow Jesus.



      We all, as followers of Jesus,

      are called to serve, no matter the power or prestige involved.

      We’re called to sacrifice our self for one another.


      And this can happen in many ways,

      there are always countless opportunities.

      Do we take advantage of the possibilities for countless acts of small service?


      One thing I have learned as a dad, 

      is what it means to do lots of different small things for someone, 

      very personal small things, 

      like bathing my youngest daughter and changing her diaper. 

      Through these small acts of service I am intimately connected to another human’s needs…

      she can’t do it by herself. 


      Jim Somerville tells another story:

      I still remember talking to a well-respected pastor at a minister’s conference when he looked down and noticed that my shoe was untied. 

      Before I could do anything about it, 

      he had dropped to one knee to tie it for me. 

      I was embarrassed, like Peter, but when he stood up again, 

      he resumed the conversation as if nothing had happened. 

      Maybe that was why he was so well respected. 



      Maybe that is why  Jesus says to his disciples: 

      “Do not be afraid to stoop down and offer the most humble service imaginable to one another. 

      It is no more than I have done for you”


      In our world today, they are so many people broken and bruised,

      so many people needing help,

      people with incurable illnesses, people abused,
      people discriminated against,

      people forgotten,

      people in the midst of war and poverty.

      Across the globe there are people who desperately need others to take up the towel and serve their needs.


      We, as Christians, must heed this cry.

      There are many ways we can serve others.

      For example:


      -Volunteer with an outside organization such as a local women’s shelter, a local hospital, a literacy program.…

      -Donate blood

      -Adopt a highway or green space and keep it clean.

      -Consider what gifts you have to share with others. 

      Can you offer to share your talents as a way that serves God and others?


      Washing feet is a symbol for selfless serving...

      One little ritual of footwashing can bring up a big discussion.

      As we reenact it today, I hope these thoughts will be fruitful for you in considering its place in our liturgy here on Maundy Thursday evening.

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